Book Review: Crossroads by Laurel Hightower
“Hightower strikes the perfect balance between horror and drama, sadness and hope, in this tale of tragedy and the purest love.”
It has been a busy couple of years for author Laurel Hightower since the publication of first novel Whispers in the Dark (Journalstone, 2018). Not only has she been learning to juggle a busy personal life and day job with becoming the third host on the hugely enjoyable InkHeist podcast (alongside co-hosts Shane Douglas Keene and Rich Duncan), but she has been working on a new novella, which is now ready to be launched as the debut release from Samantha Kolesnik’s brand new Off Limits Press.
Opening lines are not the be-all and end-all of a story, but an effective opening is the author’s first chance to grab the attention of the reader. Hightower’s opening to Crossroads is very effective, in that it introduces the main character while also hinting at the tragedy and its repercussions which have come to rule her life, and does so in a concise way. Chris had figured her life out after her amicable divorce from Beau, the father of her only child, Trey. She and Trey lived in a cosy house for many years, she growing her career as a Claims Adjuster while Trey grew into a responsible, hard-working young man. Then, disaster struck a few months before Trey was due to turn twenty-two, two years prior to the beginning of the story, when he lost control of his car and crashed it at a crossroads. Not wearing a seatbelt, he died instantly, thrown from the vehicle.
It’s clear from Hightower’s tight prose that, while Chris has got her life together, living the spinster life with her cat, Penny Lane, next door to friend and eligible bachelor Dan, she is still sadly suffering from the tragedy. While Trey was buried at the cemetery, Chris prefers to visit the cross she erected in the clearing next to the site of the accident, and enjoys brief, light-hearted exchanges with her son’s spirit, always over her shoulder. Whether this is a true supernatural occurrence or a harmless coping mechanism used by Chris to help her get through the day isn’t important; it offers a great insight into the pragmatic yet hopeful character of our protagonist. The true supernatural element, which Hightower presents at the perfect time, after briefly introducing us to the main players and the protagonist’s motivation, is only revealed after Chris makes an unintentional sacrifice.
While Chris shows a passing interest in “reality television” shows about the paranormal, including the old legend about Robert Johnson making a pact with the devil at a crossroad, she is really only following her own instinct on her actions when she stops hearing Trey, and spies him outside her house one night. This is no retelling of an old story, and she isn’t driven by selfish desires. It is a story of a mother’s love for her child, and how far she will go to right something she perceives as very wrong. In this sense, it is as much a love story as it is a horror story, the moments of anguish and longing experienced by Chris perfectly captured by Hightower to portray a simple pain faced by a complex character, a parent, a pain that hopefully most readers won’t have personal experience of, but thanks to Hightower’s excellent storytelling, is easily felt by all empathetic readers.
That isn’t to say there is no strong horror elements in the story. Far from it. In her desperation to give her only child a second chance at life, Chris goes to ever bloodier and riskier extremes, quickly escalating her situation. Throughout this process, we were caught in a tense quandary, unable to tear our eyes from the words on the page, while growing increasingly uncomfortable at the choices Chris was making, and the author’s refusal to spare the blood. While most parents will quickly profess their willingness to do anything for their children, as Chris does, our protagonist also struggles with striking the balance of making her sacrifices and keeping up appearances for her employer and her neighbour, Dan. It further demonstrates Hightower’s knack for great characterisation and capturing the humanity of Chris on the page, the desperate parent and the sadness she must endure. Sure, we all claim there is no length we wouldn’t go to for our kids while life is good and all is well, but even the best-intentioned of us would face a moment of hesitancy if we were asked to give so much, to give everything, before going through with it. In doing so, Hightower gives Chris life in the mind of the reader, all the more reason for us to relate to her, sympathise with her, root for her.
The novella-length is perfect for this kind of story. The author provides exactly the right amount of information we need to understand Chris’s situation and her character without bogging us down in needless information. We know Chris works in insurance, but it is never explored beyond her role as it isn’t important to the main story. The same goes for her relationship with her ex-husband and his second wife, and their children. We are introduced to them, briefly, but not in any great detail. Only as they pertain to Chris’s past, and her reaction to Trey’s accident. While it could easily be devoured in a single sitting (especially once Chris comes to terms with what she must finally do; those scenes were equal parts tragic and compelling), the book isn’t cover-to-cover action. There are plenty of scenes devoted to the sorrowful introspection of Chris, as well as the hopeful romance blossoming between her and Dan. But the attention afforded the characters is just as compelling as the gruesome scenes of horror. Hightower strikes the perfect balance between horror and drama, sadness and hope, in this tale of tragedy and the purest love, while causing the reader to squirm in their seats and happily break the promise of “just one more chapter”, until the shocking and satisfying conclusion. A wonderful mix of technical ability and heart proves a tremendous success and a great choice by the editors at Off Limits Press to get off to the best possible start for a new publishing company.
Publisher: Off Limits Press
eBook: 93 (pps.)
Release Date: 10 August 2020
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